$130 Million Raised To Build ‘Smart Roads’ In Michigan For AVs, Pissing Off Some Silicon Valley Nerds

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When it comes to developing automated vehicles, you could divide the technological approaches to the goal of fully self-driving cars into two camps: one that works with cars that have all the artificial intelligence needed to drive independently, anywhere, and one that works with cars that may rely on outside infrastructural help to do the job. In America at least, most of the players in the AV space are firmly in the first camp, developing cars that won’t need infrastructural help. That’s not everyone, though, as we can see with a project planned in Michigan that has just raised $130 million to build a “smart” corridor on I-94 just for connected automated vehicles. So what’s the better approach, here?

The project is a joint venture between connected road development company Cavnue and the state of Michigan (shaped like an oven mitt, stuffed up into Canada, David’s home) and the goal is to create a special corridor along Michigan Avenue and I-94 connecting Detroit and Ann Arbor that will allow for automated, self-driving connected vehicles of all kinds – mass transit, cargo, personal, whatever.

Here’s how the State of Michigan describes the project:

The vision for the corridor is intended to create lanes that are purpose-built to accelerate and enhance the full potential of CAVs and move people. To achieve this, Cavnue will work with regional partners to plan, design, and develop the world’s most sophisticated roadway, combining innovations in physical, digital, coordination, and operational infrastructure to help increase the safety, efficiency, resilience and operations of roadways, and improve the mobility experience for users by enabling a faster and more coordinated dedicated autonomous mobility corridor. At its core, the project is designed to be “future-proofed” and evolve to meet transportation goals, beginning with connected buses and shared mobility vehicles such as vans and shuttles, and expanding to additional types of CAVs such as freight and personal vehicles.

Ford is a major partner in this new venture as well, which does set them a bit apart from other major automakers that are working on automated driving tech like Tesla or GM. Ford CEO Jim Farley announced late last year the creation of a division to focus on AV tech and other futuristic stuff called Ford Next, and the VP of new business for that division, Franck Louis-Victor, gave this almost meaningless statement about the venture:

“At Ford, we are helping build a future of transportation that is safe, connected, sustainable and obtainable for all. That vision goes well beyond vehicles – and includes building an always-on relationship with our customers and delivering an ever-improving user experience. Cavnue’s mission to build the world’s most advanced roads aligns with that vision and has the potential to help accelerate the pace at which we can advance driver assistance features and safely deploy autonomous vehicles.”

The only thing to really take away from that heavily PR-massaged statement is this part: “potential to help accelerate the pace at which we can advance driver assistance features and safely deploy autonomous vehicles.”

That’s because if we’re being absolutely, ruthlessly honest about when we can reasonably expect fully automated, self-driving vehicles (Level 5 on the SAE’s confusing scale) are really quite a long way away, in large part because reality is, let’s be honest, a bit of a shitshow.

The Neural networks that underpin many automated and semi-automated driving systems, like Tesla’s Full Self-Driving Beta, suffer from something that has been called “brittleness” by researchers, which basically means (in the case of computer vision systems) that when an AI “sees” and “recognizes” something, another instance of that same something (road conditions or markings or signs or objects or vehicles) may not be properly identified because of what, to a human, would be a relatively small change.

This means that for these visual AI systems to really learn to be fully independent, they need to have massive amounts of examples to pull from, and even then there’s no guarantee the next whatever will be recognized, because, again, reality is a confusing, chaotic place. It’s part of why we’ve seen these systems confusing the moon for traffic lights or stopping for stop signs on billboards.

All of this is to say that if you drop down one SAE level, to L4, which is self-driving in restricted areas, then things get vastly easier, because if you’re only permitting automated driving in a contained area, then you can effectively control the reality in that area.

That’s what would happen in this Detroit-Ann Arbor corridor: conditions would be made favorable for AVs, by minimizing the sort of traffic situations that would be encountered and providing more information to the cars from the road infrastructure itself.

I think this approach will get us to fully automated driving a hell of a lot faster, and would be crucial in taking care of what I think is automated driving’s biggest unsolved problem: how do you deal with a disabled autonomous vehicle, as in how do you get it out of an active traffic lane if something goes wrong?

If the car needs a human to take over, but the human is not responding, most current AVs and semi-AVS just stop in their lane. This isn’t a good solution, but it’s really all that can be expected – after all, if the car needed a human to take over, it’s because it was no longer capable of driving on its own, so how can it pull itself off the road?

A special AV-friendly connected road could solve this problem. I even wrote about this very idea a few years back and my solution involved a sort of smart road as well. There’s a lot of advantages to letting the infrastructure help cars drive, but it’s not a solution everyone likes, by a long shot. Especially people with Silicon Valley tech backgrounds.

This article about the new planned smart corridor on Forbes illustrates the other view well. The headline even comes out and says “A Dumb Highway Is Better.” The article suggests that the main reason a partially infrastructure-based solution is proposed is that infrastructure development is simply what the proposers know, and that the internet is a better model:

“I have previously written about the lessons of the internet, and how they preach the idea of stupid infrastructure and smart devices, and thus the idea of smart cars on stupid roads. The internet took over the world by following the principle of “innovation at the edges, not in the network” and resulted in more change and innovation than anything else in history. It is very hard for people who come from an infrastructure mindset to accept this principle. If what you know is infrastructure, you think the solution lies in infrastructure.”

The article also argues that any infrastructure development is slow and likely to be obsolete when finally deployed, and uses smartphones as another analogy as to why the smart car/dumb road model makes more sense:

“The phone is the clearest example of this, as people replace phones every 1-2 years. It’s almost impossible for the phone not to win eventually, even if that seems ridiculous today. Cars last 20 years, but that will change with robotaxis, which will wear out by the mile and drive 3 to 5 times as many miles in a year. They will also be designed for “field” upgrades — many Tesla owners have already had the computer in their cars replaced in Tesla’s quest for self-driving. Robotaxis will be designed to have various important components replaced with the latest new technologies that weren’t even imagined when the vehicle was first imagined.

In robocars, a “field” upgrade isn’t really a field upgrade. These vehicles can deliver themselves to service depots on demand to get their upgrades, unlike any other hardware product deployed into the field.”

I have a lot of problems with these takes. First, and it’s weird that I need to even say this, but cars aren’t phones. You can take so many more risks with phones because when they crash, you just have to reboot them, as opposed to when your car crashes you need a paramedic to drag you out, potentially.

And as far as the “field” upgrades go, yes, Tesla did upgrade the computers in customers’ cars that wanted to use FSD Beta, but it cost $1,500 and I don’t see how updating tech on many individual cars is necessarily more efficient than updating tech on one roadway or network that propagates to all the devices that use it.

Also, the cars driving themselves to the “field upgrade” depots thing, that’s not a thing yet, for anyone. And is the author saying that robotaxis will wear out a lot quicker? I mean, if they’re driving constantly, I suppose that’s true, though I’m not sure that’s a positive?

I think we’ve seen over history that infrastructure networks actually can prove to be surprisingly adaptable to new technology. Hell, look at the old copper-line phone network, that went from purely analog telephony to digital traffic over the 20th century from wirephotos to telexes to faxes to modems to DSL lines, and there’s still advances being made to utilize this very, very old network.

We use the same electric-power delivery network that our grandmas plugged their Electroluxes into to power and recharge all of our devices, including electric cars. It’s possible to design infrastructures in ways that are flexible enough to remain relevant even as the technology of the machines that use that infrastructure change.

Yes, there’s still arguments about how difficult it is to get infrastructure projects to happen, since they’re tied up with politics and voting and people and all that mess, but the truth is that if we, as a society, are serious about coming up with a safer and better way to transport ourselves that uses automated driving tech, there’s really no great reason not to get the road infrastructure to help as an active partner in the process.

I get the excitement and novelty of a robotic car that can drive itself anywhere, anytime, in any conditions, but that’s maybe too demanding a goal, and more importantly, maybe not even a goal that actually matters if we have a good network of Level 4-ready roads to use.

If you want to drive anywhere with no restrictions, you can always use the squishy wet computer you have jammed in your skull. We’ve already seen that work at least reasonably well for over a century.

 

 

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44 Responses

  1. I always assumed that, if autonomous cars ever happened, that they’d rely on special lanes and their own vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-road network. You’d pull up to the AV lane, match your speed, wait for your car to “pair” with the road network, and then it would slot you into place where it wanted you. When it’s time to exit, you issue a command, and it kicks you out (somehow).

    I never expected full level 5 autonomy, and still don’t.

    1. I remember some old advertising film from like the ‘60s where they had this futuristic car that got onto a freeway with a driver at the wheel and it basically did what you said, the network took over once you were on the major road network. I’d trust that far more than any ‘autonomous’ system they’re pushing at Tesla.

  2. Wow, that take is bad. Infrastructure people see infrastructure as a solution because it has solved a lot of problems and continues to do so, not because everyone outside the tech bro circles is lagging behind. And the cell phone comparison is especially weird, given that cell phones rely on towers, a form of infrastructure, and those towers are improved and updated over time (anyone remember just a couple months back when we were talking about 3G being discontinued and some car navigation and other features being obsolete).
    In an ideal situation, we would keep hardware and infrastructure up-to-date…like we do for phones.

    1. It really scares me just how much this person was discounting infrastructure. Like, it’s important. The phone he cites won’t work without infrastructure, as you said. Vehicles delivering themselves to service depots? The service depots are infrastructure. Over the air updates, not possible without infrastructure. Even stupid roads are infrastructure – and if they’re not well maintained and updated ANYWAY your fancy dancy AV won’t be able to drive on it.

      I swear, sometimes silicon valley types function by not understanding how anything works and then making a solution that takes a solved problem and deploys a worse solution.

      1. It’s pretty funny that the solution to the problem of “infrastructure people can only think of infrastructure solutions” is “tech bro people can only think of tech bro solutions”

        I’m sure I’m missing something, but I don’t understand why the autonomous driving folks wouldn’t be all over any incremental improvement to the viability of AV adoption. Smart roads to take some of the burden off smart vehicles even if only to increase redundancy and decrease liability? Intra vehicle communication to further strengthen the network and leverage more (and again more redundant) data? Hell, someone needs to develop the smart road tech, so why wouldn’t they want to be involved there? Unless it’s just a case of not-invented-hereness.

        1. It’s also funny that only a few years back, one of the benefits touted for self-driving vehicles is that they would be able to communicate with each other and avoid accidents because we would simply mandate every vehicle would have transponders that would communicate with each other and keep them informed of position, velocity, and, in the case of fellow self-driving vehicles, intention. It was a little optimistic, in that it sort of ignored that the non-automated cars were driven by less predictable humans, but it made sense.

          We did not push forward in that direction, so infrastructure that would help everything communicate is now scoffed at. And that’s not even considering infrastructure and public transit that would reduce the number of drivers, which is almost entirely ignored, even as we consider not actually driving our cars.

      2. “I swear, sometimes silicon valley types function by not understanding how anything works and then making a solution that takes a solved problem and deploys a worse solution.”
        Yeah, like the Vegas tunnels that are somehow substantially worse than both subways and regular vehicle tunnels.

    2. You are so correct about cell phones, most people have no idea the infrastructure that goes into supporting mobile devices. “It just goes through the air,” wrong. It goes from your phone to the closest tower that is built for that frequency, if there is one for that carrier, and is never “through the air” again until it reaches the closest tower to the cell phone you are communicating with. Infrastructure is the only way to do this where everything communicates correctly and with the right info. It also makes it where the car doesn’t have to be a supercomputer to operate, as a lot of the logic and decision making needed can be done centrally for all on the same protocol.

      1. Yeah, if you were still using an 8-year-old phone. The argument made in the original article is that infrastructure doesn’t keep up and updating/upgrading cars every 2-3 years will progress self-driving better.

        If anything, your example shows that infrastructure gets ahead of things. Interestingly, the 2-3 year update/upgrade cycle combined with infrastructure is a pretty solid way to progress tech (it’s pretty much the cell phone cycle). You keep improving the technology on both sides, without getting out of sync. Sure, it’s a lot of replaced computers, but not actually more than if you’re trying to make cars keep up with advancing automation tech individually.

        Aside from that, we can progress infrastructure without making existing tech obsolete. The choice to create phones without replaceable modems/antennae and the choice to increase data bandwidth by using different signals were choices made by companies taking into account upgrade cycles, consumer use, etc.

        Of course, the better solution would be good public transit for those who don’t want to drive. Cars could be for people who wish to drive, while the roads would get less congested when others use buses, subways, rail, or whatever else. But that’s just not the way it’s going.

  3. Something to keep in mind when reading all these takes about how AVs need to operate independently of infrastructure:

    As opposed to the trillions of venture capital money flooding into the autonomous vehicle space, there’s fuck-all VC money to be farmed through infrastructure development.

    So the moment we as a society realize that the comfort, speed, and safety of transportation is an infrastructural problem, that VC money is drying up faster than…I dunno, some other thing that dries up quickly. And when that happens, that’s a lot of highly-paid consultants, executives, and machine learning PhDs without a gig.

    Thanks again for attending Daaan Raaants About Infrastructure Week here in the Autopian comments.

    1. “I dunno, some other thing that dries up quickly.”

      Like Lake Mead.

      And like the bottom of the now dry Lake Mead you won’t like what’s there.

      “And when that happens, that’s a lot of highly-paid consultants, executives, and machine learning PhDs without a gig.”

      Kinda but not quite.

        1. I think he’s suggesting that the cadre of highly-paid consultants, executives, and PhDs will just pivot to the next big thing. Like Harold Hill heading to the next dumb town to sell more band uniforms and seventy-six slightly-used trombones.

          1. Put simply and concisely Iike it.
            What everyone seems to forget is we will still need to support current infrastructure, which we aren’t doing now support the building and maintaining a new infrastructure with the same money. That $130 million won’t support the development let alone building and then maintaining a new infrastructure. We need 8 billion just to bring current infrastructure to needed safe level. So add trillions to design and build and maintain a new infrastructure for less than 1% of current vehicles. I don’t think this is affordable.

    1. Amen it’s all well and good to install it but how about upkeep. Anyone here remember 1999. The whole computer world thought every computer would shut down because the computers would think it was 1900 and realize they weren’t developed yet and shut down every computer in the world? If we have bridges the need replaced and infrastructure needed updates and still no money what do we spend the money we do have on? Government doesn’t look any further down the road than the next election.

  4. This is totally the way to go.

    As long as the car-road interface is kept relatively simple and robust this is really a no brainer. Less glamorous, but easily workable with current technology, likely relatively inexpensive to retrofit to existing vehicles (speeding up adaptation) and easily updatable centrally in years to come.

    The cell phone infrastructure is an excellent example of this approach.

    Now – and I’m only half kidding on this – they just need to adopt a failsafe financial model: Make it a federal project, conducted on interstates in all states at the same time, with jobs and money flowing to all places making it virtually impossible to cancel.

    Doing this, even before all development is done, is not the cheapest way to go. But it is certainly the fastest, and a way to make it the project visually and mentally connect with a large enough group op citizens that it will eventually succeed giving us at least *something*. And it would also force a resolution on the liability and insurance questions associated with automated vehicular transportation.

  5. When you look at the history of roads in the US, it’s clear that there were a lot of major advances in engineering and regulation (especially regulation) from about the early 1900’s (traffic signals, jaywalking laws, paved roads) to, say, the 1960’s (interstate highways, crash safety, emissions) that changed way society related to cars and transportation.

    Now that we have the ability to have semi-autonomous cars, we will probably spend the next 50 years creating new advances in engineering and regulation to make them work, including “smart” roads When comparing the current road network to the one in 1910, I think we have already engineered and regulated a lot of “smart-ness” into it (just not the type of intelligence that a tech-bro would acknowledge, because it isn’t based in silicon).

    Elon Musk and his ilk sound (to me) like a 1902 automaker bragging about how their car will soon be able to quickly and easily traverse muddy, cart-rutted dirt roads once they solve the problem of their skinny rubber tires blowing their tubes and getting stuck, when the actual solution was the creation of an intelligently planned and regulated network of paved roads. The real challenge for self-driving is the same as it was for all driving in 1902: a road network designed around the a new form of transportation whose needs are different than the forms that came before it.

  6. Philosophical dilemma as old as these United States:

    Myth of the Old West with the “rugged individualism” and the image of a white cowboy riding alone on his horse and blazing his own trail. (read: current Tech Bro in “autonomous Ford Mustang Mach-E”)

    Myth of the Commons with the “all in this together socialism” viewpoint with the image of the travelers on the well-rutted Mormon Trail in covered wagon trains that spanned thousands of miles. (read: current infrastructure using “smart highways and ubiquitous charging stations”)

    As with all things in this country, we live in the muddled middle. The pendulum will swing from one side to other depending on who holds the current power wand. (read: who is most wealthy)

    Warning! watch out for THE richest man in the world right now who holds the wand. (read E. Musk)

  7. That comment about “stupid networks” is a sadly-familiar slap in the face to all of the folks who work on maintaining, upgrading, and innovating network infrastructure. There’s a pecking order of nerds where programmers are the cool jocks and network admins are the AV club. Programmers are breakin’ rules and crackin’ skulls to shave a microsecond off of a function’s performance, while some network loser or database admin is droning on about redundancy and protocols. This is the tech world’s perennial blind spot.

  8. That take on “infrastructure people” comes off as very self unaware to me. Whether it’s true or not, and I don’t believe it is, the exact opposite can be said of silicon valley. Take the comment about replacing your phone every 2 years, and suggesting cars will become that when robo taxis take over. As if that’s a given. Anyone that talks as if the idea of car ownership will change to such an extreme at any point in the future is just talking as much utter shite as the “experts” preaching flying cars back in the 80’s or whenever that whole thing was big. It’s so out of touch with reality. And this attitude permeates everything these so called tech experts say, they clearly live in a very small bubble and frankly I don’t place any weight on what they say will happen.

    1. I get your frustration but 90% of the US is not anywhere close to accessible by train. It works in cities and to about 75% of mass transit so like EVs should be done where it is achievable but you don’t have enough money in the entire world to build a transit system for the USA.

  9. The problem here is going to be the cost in taxes that this will end up occupying in the local and federal budgets. 130 million sounds like a lot, but several years ago one mile of interstate was 1 million per mile, and this seems like a very niche investment that is only going to appeal to a very small portion of the population. Just saying it will be a bit of a hard sell.

    1. You are so right. The argument is always the same. Build this new stuff start in the cities and build out. The money is spent the cities benefit. But then they spend the money they make expect the federal government to maintain them without the any city money. And it never gets built out to the 80% of the tax payers who paid for the original investment. There are places all over the US with poor roads, no public transportation, no internet, but the people in the city expect to keep living of the federal taxes for new ideas and screw 80% of the people who pay for it they still can’t get cable or internet. Drive 3 hours to the nearest airport or sports arena their taxes paid for. Forget about paying their roads the city people want new stuff.

    1. Beat me to it! There are a few ways to get to Ann Arbor, but I-95 ain’t one of them (unless you are in a plane that takes off from the passing lane while looking at the Atlantic Ocean).
      You were just in Michigan, Jason!!!!

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